By Kevin McClintock
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Con-way Truckload driver Robert Woolf doesn’t feel like an angel, though he’s been labeled as one.
During a ceremony Friday morning in front of a roomful of his peers, the four-year veteran of the road was honored by company representatives for a good deed he performed late last year on a lonely stretch of highway just east of New Brunswick, Canada.
Woolf was traveling along Interstate 90 just after sunrise on Nov. 7 in northern Maine, when a small passenger car passed him. When the road curved, the car continued straight, grinding along the guardrail.
“I was the only one on the road at the time that it happened,” Woolf said of the accident.
The car, never slowing, continued to bump against the guardrail — throwing up a cloud of sparks, rubber and metal — for a fourth of a mile, Woolf said, before crossing the median, smashing into the guardrail in the opposite lane, bouncing back across the median and spinning to a stop in Woolf’s lane.
“You can’t let something like that happen and not do something. You can’t drive by something like that and ignore it. You wouldn’t be able to live with yourself.”
Woolf, a resident of Leland, N.C., who has worked for the Joplin-based Con-way for more than two years, pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed a fire extinguisher and dashed over to the wrecked car.
Through the window, he could see the driver was confined in the driver’s seat by his seatbelt and deployed airbag. He was bloody and unconscious. The driver’s door was crushed. He went around to the passenger side door and was able to crawl into the car.
He remembered an incident from his days in truck driver training school, when he and some fellow trainees had witnessed a similar type of accident.
“I’d witnessed a bad accident and one of the guys that was in the truck training with me,” Woolf said, “ran over and helped save a man’s life.’’
He later told Woolf how important it was to keep accident victims perfectly still to avoid spinal injuries.
Remembering that advice, Woolf used his shoulder to prop the man up and then cupped his hand against the man’s neck to serve as a makeshift brace. He held the man immobilized until paramedics arrived on the scene.
“It seemed like an eternity, sitting in that car, but it probably wasn’t more than five to 10 minutes,” Woolf said.
He still remembers holding the man inside the battered car, his hands and arms covered with the injured driver’s blood.
“It makes me shake just thinking about it. I couldn’t sleep for a week afterward.”
The story had a happy ending.
“The paramedics, when they were putting (the injured man) into the ambulance, they told me that he was going to make it.”
But “this is something you really don’t want to re-live. You try not to think about it. I’m on the road every day, every week, every month, and it’s something you don’t want to see every day.”
Woolf averages roughly 120,000 miles a year, visiting all 48 states. During that fateful November run, he was making a California-to-Maine delivery.
“During that first week after it happened I thought that every car that passed me was ready to crash,” Woolf admitted. “Seat belts definitely saved that man’s life, so now I always buckle up nice and tight. That’s one of the first things I think about when I get behind the wheel.”
Chris Shilhanek, director of safety for Con-way, presented Woolf with a Highway Angel lapel pin, certificate and patch. He said it’s rare for a driver to receive an Angel badge, since the criteria for nabbing one is so stringent. It’s the first time a Con-way driver has received such accolades since 1999.
“We always encourage our drivers, when they feel comfortable, to render aid to a stranded motorist, so we’re very proud of” Woolf, he said. “Every month we get all kinds of letters from motorists telling us how Con-way drivers stopped alongside motorists to give them aid.’’
Drivers like Woolf, he continued, “are truly the knights of the road.”
The Highway Angel program is sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association and by Internet Truckstop. Since the program’s inception in August 1997, hundreds of drivers have been recognized as Highway Angels for the unusual kindness, courtesy and courage they have shown others while on the job. TCA has received letters and emails from people across North America nominating truck drivers for the program.